Audiences will fall in love with ONCE – A New Musical

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The ever so popular recipient of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Book, and Best Orchestrations has come to Orange County!  ONCE has debuted at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and will play for a limited engagement until August 31st, 2014. This romantic, pure and gritty musical has quickly become a fan favorite across the nation and London.  It’s a simple show relying heavily on the power of the music.  It will encompass the entire audience with such emotion just with its beloved songs.

This incredible strong show is based on the Irish movie of the same name, written and directed by John Carney, about the life-changing connection between a pair of musicians known only as Guy and Girl.  He is a street singer/songwriter in Dublin who works separately as a vacuum repairman, and she is a Czech immigrant who sells flowers in order to support herself and her family.  With music as the catalyst, the center piece of the entire show, Guy and Girl and embark on a brief, powerful, and transformative journey featuring Academy-Award Winning Best Song “Falling Slowly”.

In just a few days their love is a complicated romance that’s developed mostly through raw emotion from the songs they have collaborated together.  This is such a different musical like no other you have probably seen.  This adaptation is brought to the stage by an award-winning team of visionary artists and an ensemble cast all of talented actor/musicians.

Everyone on stage plays an instrument; in fact there is no orchestra, the pit is even covered up.  Instead the audience is treated to new experience.  Upon arrival it is quick to see that this will be something new and invigorating.  The curtain is already drawn when you enter the theater; there are people on stage mingling around.  After further inspection it’s apparent the people on stage on are just theater-going patrons.

With so much activity it’s tough to not be curious.  You may want to bring some cash and arrive early as you may actually purchase a beer on stage prior to the show and even bringing drinks for the lobby into the theater.  As we get closer to showtime several people on stage clear the center and begin playing beautiful Irish music.  In that instant, you are transported to an Irish pub.  Everything feels so natural, patrons still talk amongst each other perhaps not realizing the band on stage is the cast of the show!

The band continues to play and the audience begins to become more engaged.  The lights fade slowly almost unnoticeable and before you know it, the show has begun.  The bar on stage is dimmed and this will be the backdrop for night.  There are no set changes, no costume changes, just the soul of the performers and their music.

It’s a very organic feel, something playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh (Penelope, Hunger, The New Electric Ballroom) wanted from the start.  Fans of the movie may wonder how they could bring such a quiet, gritty film to Broadway, but it was that challenge that made Walsh and director John Tiffany want to do it even more.

Originally they both thought it was a terrible idea.  When approached about Once, Tiffany hadn’t even seen the film yet, but was told by his best friend that he will love the music.  He downloaded the soundtrack and fell in love.  He had never heard music like that and that’s what made him want to do the show.  It wasn’t just the music though, ”but the fact that it’s a story about creating music, a story about the healing power of music.”

“We’re going to be able to see actors create the music in front us.”

The show begins with practically the entire cast in front of us.  After several Irish folk songs, the cast moves around and the lights adjust slightly letting the audience know the scene has changed.  Guy begins the infamous first song of the film “Leave” and Girl is quickly introduced.

The role of Guy and several key characters may change often during the run of Once.  It should be notated that the billed cast member for Guy for this production is Stuart Ward, however at Segerstrom the role will be alternating between Alex Knee (American Idiot, Rent, Spring Awakening) and Ryan Link (Wonderland, Hair, Rent).  Opening saw Knee performing the role.

For stage I would imagine that the accents may have not been able to be as thick, as the accents are a bit tamed for the show.  Girl is played by the talented Dani de Waal (Picnic, Mamma Mia!) and whilst still cute and sweet, the role is a bit different.  Both Guy and Girl and basically exaggerated versions of themselves, which I believe plays better on stage.  It makes sense as to why the direction went this route, but I found Guy’s role to be a little harsher and slightly mean.  His character is rightfully justified to be this way, but I felt the charm was a bit lacking.

This isn’t to say his performance wasn’t out of this role.  Alex Knee sang beautifully and just as powerful as seen in the film.  Both Guy and Girl brought justice to the known songs and performed the new ones magnificently.

Girl is a little bit more confident in herself than the role in the movie, but perhaps this was due to the fact her little nuances wouldn’t been seen on stage.  There are still plenty of similarities between their on screen counterparts, but these slight changes are worth mentioning.

All the characters are strong and as mentioned before are always on stage.  If not featured in the scene they sit quietly on the sides, reminiscent of Chicago, and sometimes play their instruments as part of the orchestra for the show.  This lends to some creative choreography and staging for several songs.

Even “Falling Slowly” feels larger and grander.  In the movie there were only 5 instruments playing at any given moment whereas here there are 12 on stage.  It was definitely incredible to see such talent in all the performers as everyone had to not only act well, but sing and play at the same time.  Casting seems like a difficult challenge.

The musical follows the same crescendo as the film with a couple new scenes for music additions.  The heart and feel is still there.  There are small items that I missed like Girl wondering the streets selling her flowers, but with the staging it just wouldn’t have worked.

Once is a fantastic escape.  Let the music transport you into their lives.  If you haven’t seen the movie, it is still an incredibly romantic night out that will leave you wanting the soundtrack as soon as you enter your car.  This is a show about life and love and remains honest keeping it’s originality from the film.  It’s a night you won’t forget.

ONCE is now playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Segerstrom Hall
It does feature adult language

August 19th – 31st, 2014
Tuesday – Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.
Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

The 2 p.m. performance on Saturday, August 30th will include audio description, open captioning and sign-language interpretation.

Tickets start at $25

For more information visit scfta.org

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Joel Covey
Joel has been writing for SoCalThrills for the past decade covering entertainment, events, and theater since joining the site. He is a CSUF alum, studying within the Communication and Radio / TV / Film colleges.